Standing at twin podiums in front of the White House Thursday morning, President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made their debut as climate change’s new dynamic duo.
In a rollout of Arctic-centered initiatives, Obama and Trudeau commit to protecting 17 of land areas and 10 percent of marine areas by 2020. They also plan to regulate fisheries in the Central Arctic Oceans to ensure sustainable populations and encourage low impact shipping corridors.
But most importantly, they plan to seriously decrease their countries’ methane emissions, a byproduct of the oil and gas industries and a top polluting greenhouse gas.
“To set us on an ambitious and achievable path, the leaders commit to reduce methane emissions by 40-45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025 from the oil and gas sector, and explore new opportunities for additional methane reductions,” reads a US-Canada joint statement from the White House.
So what does this mean?
“It’s huge,” Drew Nelson, Environmental Defense Fund’s senior manager of natural gas, tells the Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Thursday. “What they’ve announced today is a significant down payment on global action and hopefully it will pave the way for other countries to follow suit. This shines a huge spotlight on the value and impact that these reductions can have globally.”
In their joint press release, the United States and Canada extend a special invitation to their fellow North American comrade Mexico. The US and Canada are the second and fourth largest methane emitters respectively, and Mexico is close behind at number five.
If the US, Canada and Mexico all had a 45 percent reduction in oil and gas methane emissions, it would reduce the world’s overall methane output from oil and gas by 10 percent – equivalent to closing over 100 coal power plants.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) already addressed methane emissions from the oil and gas sector last summer – but only from new and modified sources. However to reach the ambitious goal set by Obama and Trudeau Thursday, all oil and gas sources in the US – new or old – will be monitored for methane emissions.
“There are hundreds of thousands of existing oil and gas sources across our country; some emit small amounts of methane, while others emit a lot,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says in a press release Thursday. “I am pleased and proud to fulfill President Obama’s commitment to reduce methane emissions and join our Canadian colleagues in the continued fight against climate change.”
Thursday’s bold goals are not the first time the bordering countries have worked together for environmental means. In 1991, the two countries signed the US-Canada Air Quality Agreement to address air pollution and acid rain.
“But that was focused on local air quality,” explains Nelson. “This is on global climate change. So whether or not you emit methane in Canada, the US or Timbuktu, its going to have the same impact on the climate.”
And even without the ambitious climate goals, Thursday’s press conference was memorable.
“We are very proud to welcome the first official visit by a Canadian prime minister in nearly 20 years," Obama joked Thursday morning to a laughing crowd. "It’s about time, eh?”
[Editor's note: The original story was updated to more accurately reflect the reduction in overall methane output]